Thursday, July 28, 2011

Meat Shops in Kathmandu

We do not eat a lot of meat here in Nepal. We were not big meat eaters before we arrived, and lately we have been meat-free due to our 40 Days of Yoga Challenge. In addition, the selection of meat for home consumption is limited in terms of quality and quantity. Beef is rare in this Hindu country, and the safest meat available at places like Bhat-Bhateni Super Market and the excellent Nina and Hager's markets is sold frozen rock solid.

There is another option for procuring meat that we have never considered, but it is available in Kathmandu: the local mom-and-pop meat shop.

Under the table and dreaming

Sprinkled throughout the city are small meat stores that hawk their presumably fresh products from counters along the street. The offerings are usually goat, chicken, wild boar, and perhaps water buffalo.

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Hygiene varies. Sometimes the meat is covered by a mesh dome of sorts to keep flies away. At some shops the proprietor hovers over the meat, swinging a homemade swatter to scatter the bugs. Otherwise, what you see is what you get. I don't know exactly how fresh and safe the meat is at these counters, and I don't want to ignorantly automatically assume that it is dangerous (we do, after all, buy our eggs unrefrigerated here -- something that struck me as odd at first). Still, even if we started cooking meat at home, I do not think these shops are the places Claudine and I would source.

Seeing these shops on the side of the road does not bother me in the slightest, but the squeamish might have an issue getting such a front-row seat to the origin of their meat fix. It is not uncommon to see goat or boar heads on display (and presumably for sale).

At one shop near our home, live chickens and ducks are cooped near the latest poultry kill along with a live, tethered goat with a clear view of his impending destiny. It is in some ways a sad scene ("Escape, little Billy -- you're next!"), but I do not think that factory farms and butchering facilities in America are any more uplifting. The fact is that the living, breathing goat standing next to tonight's dinner is part of the reality of eating meat, a reality from which many Americans are deeply divorced (and so many are divorced from the reality of "food" in general -- what exactly are those unpronounceable ingredients that make up a cheese puff?). Yes, your burger was once a living animal. That the cow is not standing in the tidy saran-wrapped meat section of your grocery store making eye contact with you does not make this less true. I wonder what the impact on meat consumption in the States would be if this greeted you the next time you went in search of pork chops:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dal Bhat, Nepal's National Meal

We have talked about dal bhat plenty on this blog -- after all, we ate this traditional Nepali meal twice a day, every day on the Annapurna Circuit trek -- but we have never given dal bhat its proper due with a detailed description and photo op. Today that changes, with a little dal bhat 101.

Let's start with the name. "Dal" means lentil soup, and "bhat" means rice, but a complete dal bhat meal almost always involves additional dishes. In its simplest form, like the plate shown below, dal bhat also includes a mix of curried vegetables -- often cauliflower, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and green beans, but the selection depends on the restaurant and the season.

We ate the Nepali traditional meal of dal bhat (lentils, rice, and curried vegetable) twice a day, every day

It was only on the trail, though, that we saw such simple versions of dal bhat. Whenever we order the meal in Kathmandu, at least one or two other dishes accompany the lentil soup, rice, and vegetables.

For example, there is the requisite achar, or pickle. In Nepal, though, pickle means something very different from the dill or gherkin that might come to mind. It can come in many forms, ranging from a mild tomat0-based sauce to a pungently flavored lemon rind or, even, bit of fish or meat. Here, the pickle is a raw radish coated in a gritty mix of spices and oil.

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In addition to pickle, you also frequently find spinach, lightly sauteed with garlic and often whole chilis, on your plate of dal bhat.

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A far less frequent addition to dal bhat is gundruk, or fermented mustard, radish, and cauliflower greens. Confession: when I first tried gundruk, I thought that I had finally met a vegetable that I did not like. The fermentation of the greens leaves them with a very strong taste. But after a few more tries, I came to really like gundruk, and now it is a delightful surprise when it appears with dal bhat.

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The final dal bhat topper is usually a piece of round papadum, or papad for short. This South Asian cracker is typically made of lentil or chickpea flour, and it is either toasted dry or fried in oil. I love papad, and we keep a stash at home. We heat them up over a gas burner, and within a few seconds they crisp and harden.

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At any given restaurant, dal bhat can vary significantly in the offerings, quality, and price. For starters, there are dozens of types of lentils, and no two pickles are the same. Some restaurants have served exceptionally flavored dal bhat, while others (I'm looking at you, Lazimpat Gallery Cafe) have served us some really bland lentil soup and sad-looking vegetables. Prices run the gamut, too: we have paid as little as 95 rupees (about $1.30) for dal bhat at a hole-in-the-wall in Thamel, and we have paid as much as 450 rupees (about $6.25) for dal bhat in high-elevation towns on the Annapurna Circuit.

But although we (clearly) enjoy dal bhat, we do not eat it nearly as frequently as Nepalis, who typically eat it every morning and every evening. It makes sense, then, that they call it their "national meal."

Nepalis: are we doing your food justice?
Others: what do you consider your national meal?
Share with us in the comments!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Going to the Movies in Kathmandu

During the recent American heat wave/dome/bubble, I am sure that many of you beat the sweltering sizzle by heading to the movies. When your face is melting off, nothing feels better than the chilly, climate-controlled comfort of a popcorn-scented, sticky-floored multiplex.

Here in Kathmandu, American movies are not screened with any predictable frequency. There are a handful of movie theaters here, with each usually playing the same two or three movies at any one time. Bollywood movies from India dominate American offerings by about 3-to-1. Unlike in the US, when movies come to Kathmandu, they play for about two or three weeks before being replaced by the latest blockbuster.

I am not sure who picks which American movies are shown here, but the selection skews to big budget mega hits (so maybe a 13-year-old boy?). Since I arrived here, American movies that have been on offer include Hangover 2, Transformers 3, Harry Potter 7 1/2, and whatever iteration of the X-Men Hollywood is on now. Claudine and I err on the side of picky when it comes to movies, and this fare is not generally our style, but given the limited selection we are willing to be more flexible. Sure, we could avoid movies altogether (and we largely do), but it wouldn't be summer and we wouldn't be Americans if we failed to indulge in a flick or two at the local cineplex.

Helping to draw us in is the relative low cost of movies here. In the States I could drop $12 for the privilege of cinematic escape, but here tickets range from about $1-2 for matinees and top out around $4 for prime-time shows. Why the range in prices? Like purchasing airline tickets, you choose your specific movie seat when you buy your ticket and seats are graded (silver, gold, premium) and priced according to comfort and location. We actually prefer this system. In the US, we arrived at least half an hour early to every movie we saw to be sure we got desirable seats. It's not that we are obsessed with having the best seats in the house. The issue is that in cities like Chicago and Boston, movies can be sold out on a weekend night, and arriving late and trying to find a suitable seat can be torture. Not for us -- half an hour before showtime we would settle into the best seats in the house and drink in the superb people watching as fellow moviegoers filed in, increasingly looking desperate as they entered the theater to find fewer and fewer available seats. Smug? Yes. Comfortable? Definitely, sucker.

Adding to the allure of the movies is the classic draw of ice-cold air conditioning on a hot summer day. This is especially alluring in Kathmandu where air conditioning is far, far less common than it is the US. Last time we went to the movies here I wore a t-shirt and shorts and got very cold. Given that it was mid-July, I could not have been happier.

Finally, movies here are appealing because the cinemas are actually quite nice. In a city where many establishments feel outdated and rundown, movie theaters are among the bright spots of modernity and comfort.

Wanting to escape the city and heat for bit, we decided to see the latest Harry Potter installment. That Claudine has never read a Harry Potter book and I slacked off after book three was no deterrent -- there was air-conditioned pampering to be had. We live fairly close to Big Cinemas, located on the fourth floor of City Center mall (more on the mall in another post), and we headed there to enjoy a couple of hours of Harry, Hermione, and Hogwarts.

Worried that there might be some kind of Pottermania in Nepal, we reserved our premium tickets online beforehand. Upon arrival we saw a school bus pull up and unload dozens of kids. I felt certain they were there to engage in some last gasp of cinematic J.K. Rowling worship and I was glad we pre-reserved.

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Alas, they did not join us for the film. This left me to wonder what they were doing at the mall in the middle of a school day, but no matter.

I was a bit hungry but decidedly not tempted by the hot dog cart outside the mall hawking an "American Hot Dog" that looked like anything but.

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Living recently in a city that prides itself on Chicago-style hot dogs, I did appreciate the eclectic options and toppings.

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The hot dog stand was no Hot Doug's (Chicago's "Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium" where I once had a delicious rattlesnake wiener), but it sure was creative.

Inside, the theater delivered. Seats were comfortable and plush, reclining deeper than any I had encountered in the US. The lobby was sleek and posh.

The refreshment stand offered the American standards of popcorn, soda, and some candy. For the local craving, it provided momos (steamed dumplings) and pakoras and samosas (deep-fried Indian snacks). Best of all, it served food you could pre-order to be delivered to your seat during intermission. Oh, have I not mentioned intermission yet? Here in Nepal, movies are (abruptly) interrupted midway for a short intermission. Some might find this annoying, but the weak-bladdered and the hungry might beg to differ, especially when attendants come by with snack bar menus for orders during intermission. Now that's what I call service!

Monday, July 25, 2011

40 Days of Yoga: Week Five Recap

During Week Five of our 40 Days of Yoga Challenge, Brian and I both began to experience some yoga fatigue. Maybe it was the 75-minute practices. Maybe it was the anticipation of nearing the end, reminding me of the last weeks of marathon training when I Or maybe it was not the yoga at all but rather busy-ness in our lives last week that distracted us both on and off our mats. Whatever the reason(s), during Week Five we just weren't feeling it.

That said, like all good A-Type personalities who dig their heels into a challenge, we still checked the yoga box for the required six days last week. The problem was that some days, it felt like just that -- checking a box. We began to worry that we were teetering on the edge of yoga becoming a chore.

What did we do? Well, like always, we changed up our routine; instead of practicing the same 75-minute session of Baron Baptiste's prescribed poses, we threw in a totally different, very challenging, "fun and funky" session by Faith Hunter (who made us struggle and fall and laugh and shake our heads as we tried to figure out the arm balances and other contortionist poses that fall in the category of "Yeah right. Maybe some day.").

And we also cut ourselves some slack. When we were interrupted by a phone call yesterday and completely lost our yoga groove, we scrapped the remaining 25% of the podcast, including sivasana (or corpse pose, the delicious rest and relaxation at the end). Most would argue that sivasana, not the standing poses that make you sweat and burn, is the most important part of a yoga practice. I would wholeheartedly agree. But we just couldn't get back into it. And you know what we said to that? OH, WELL.

Because if yoga -- even a half-finished, half-hearted session -- teaches you anything, it is to accept where you are in any given moment, with no judgement, only observation.

We are looking forward to completing our 40 days of yoga this coming week, with just five more practices ahead of us. Tune in next week for a final wrap-up of our experience.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Home Security in Kathmandu

We feel very safe here in Kathmandu. As long as you are not involved in illicit business or political affairs, violent crime is rare. Other than political and financial corruption, most of the crime we hear about involves burglary and petty theft. These are also not exceedingly common but are things to be wary of, especially for an expatriate who might be targeted (other than a few well-worn electronic devices, if they only knew how little we had to offer them...).

Most homes in Kathmandu are surrounded by high walls, presumably built for security reasons, although the refuge they offer from the city's loud, dusty, chaotic streets may also be a factor. One unfortunate side effect of these walls is that they make the streets here even less hospitable and pleasant than they already are. Just over that cracked, crumbling wall on the side of the road is in fact a lush Shangri-La garden. You could see and enjoy it from the street if it weren't for, well, that wall.

The actual Garden of Dreams park/restaurant is a great example of this. From the outside, yikes:

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But inside, oh my:

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Just to make sure you don't go peeking over the wall or, you know, attempt to burgle the place, some walls have added low-tech glass or rusty nail security features along their tops.

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In addition to a security wall, some households in Kathmandu employ guards to keep watch over their property. Other households use old fashioned man's-best-friend security systems. Upon moving into our new apartment, we quickly noticed the dog across the way who likes to hang out on the roof.

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Claudine named her Janice (why not?), and it is almost a daily occurrence for us to see her playing on the pitched roof, sometimes joined by the little girls who live there as well. Not the first place I think dogs and children should be playing, but nonetheless it's a little slice of life in our neighborhood. Don't let Janice's sweet roof rompings fool you, however. One evening Claudine and I walked by this house and were greeted by a growling -- nay snarling -- Janice letting her bared teeth do the talking: "Don't you dare set foot on this property." Point taken, Janice.

It's no motion-sensor light, but it gets the job done here in Kathmandu.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Recipe: Indian Roti

When I wrote about my discovery of delicious peanut butter banana hummus a couple weeks ago, I mentioned that it paired nicely with homemade roti. Today I am making due on my promise to provide a recipe.

For those of you who are ready to stop reading because you are intimidated by making any bread product (or am I the only one?), then let me first assure you that this recipe could not be any easier. The beauty of Indian roti is that there is no leavening involved. A little kneading, yes, but that's a piece of cake (er, roti?).

This recipe is also wonderfully simple in terms of ingredients. All you need is flour, salt, oil, and water. A note on the flour, though: I used atta flour, a whole wheat flour that makes up the base of most Indian-style breads. It should be readily available in any Indian market, but I cannot promise that you will find it in your local grocery store. That said, I think you could substitute regular whole wheat flour and do just fine.

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Indian Roti
(From Jyoti Pathak's Taste of Nepal)


1 and 1/4 cups atta flour, plus additional for rolling
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup water

1. Combine flour and salt in a medium sized bowl. Add the olive oil and mix by hand to combine. (Don't worry if it seems that the oil just clumps and does not distribute evenly -- adding water in the next step will help).
2. Slowly add 1/2 cup of water, a little at a time, to form a dough ball. Knead the dough directly in the bowl until it becomes smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. The dough should not be sticky; if it is, sprinkle additional flour on the dough and knead to incorporate.
3. Cover the bowl with a damp towel and set aside for 30 minutes.
4. Remove the dough and place on a cutting board or other clean, flat surface. Knead dough for about 5 minutes until it becomes pliable.
5. Divide the dough into 8 portions, shape each into a small ball, and dust each with a bit of flour. With a rolling pin or other cylinder, flatten each dough ball into a roughly 5- to 6-inch circle that is 1/8 inch thick. (While you are rolling, cover the dough balls and flattened circles with a damp kitchen towel to prevent them from drying out).
6. Head a cast-iron skillet or a non-stick pan over medium-high heat. The pan is ready when drops of water bounce and sputter.
7. Place a circle of dough on the pan and cook until the underside forms light brown dots, about 30 seconds. Turn it over and cook on other side. Turn it over again and watch as the roti begins to puff up. When roti is lightly browned on both sides and has puffed up, it is ready. This entire process should take about 3 minutes or less.
8. Transfer cooked rotis to a covered dish.

Note: When I make rotis, I usually start the process in the late morning to make them in time for lunch. I prepare half for lunch and store the remaining dough balls in the fridge for dinner. If you choose to do the same, I would advise you to keep them covered with a damp towel and use the dough within the same day.

Below, the recipe in photos.

After combining the flour, salt, oil, and water, your dough should hold together well.

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Kneading the dough for about five minutes will produce a soft, elastic ball.

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Cover the dough with a damp towel and let it sit for approximately 30 minutes (or longer -- I forgot about it for an hour, and the dough was just fine).

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Remove the dough and knead again for about 5 minutes.

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Divide the dough into 8 portions, shape each into a small ball, and dust each with a bit of flour.

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Use a rolling pin -- or, in my case, a tall glass -- to flatten each dough ball into a circle that is about 1/8 inch thick.

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Heat pan over medium heat and place roti circles, one at a time, in center of the pan. Check the bottom of the roti frequently, and when it begins to form light brown spots, flip it over.

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Cook on other side until the bottom lightly browns. Flip again and watch as the roti begins to puff up. When the roti puffs, it is ready.

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Transfer cooked rotis to a covered dish to keep them warm as you finish cooking the remaining dough.

Monday, July 18, 2011

40 Days of Yoga: Week Four Recap

Just to spice things up a bit, this week's yoga practice included a fruit fast (so, I suppose "sweeten the deal" is a better turn of phrase here). It is not technically a "fast" because you are eating during the three days, but you get the point.

All along, the 40 day yoga "personal revolution" has included some teachings regarding food and eating. Most have resembled thoughtful prodding: be mindful of what you are eating, choose fresh foods over processed junk, etc. How we jumped from that to "eat only fruit for three days" I am still figuring out, but suddenly there I was in week four turning mango madness into full-blown mango mental illness.

For the record, neither of us is one for cleanses, fad diets, or other general craziness under which you would file a fruit fast. Then again, I am not normally someone who undertakes 40-day journeys to personal revolution, so there was a bit of a leap of faith to this whole venture. Wanting to be a good sport, I signed on for the fruit fast/feast. My good will only goes so far, however -- I drew the line at what I read under the heading "A Word About Colonics." Shudder.

I was skeptical of any of the benefits promised by the fruit fast. After detoxifying for three days I was to feel "lighter, cleaner, and infused with more energy." Having spent the last three weeks forsaking meat, caffeine, and alcohol, I wasn't sure what toxins were left for my system to expunge. That Snickers bar I sneaked in a moment of weakness last weekend? Yeah, probably that. Ok, fair enough. Let's detoxify.

I am not sure who made the rules, but our definition of fruit included most things that have seeds. That meant cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, and pumpkin. These less-sweet foods helped me avoid diving headfirst into a sugar-induced mania.

Our guidelines allowed us eat avocados, which would have been awesome if they were in season and available here. Sign me up for a three-day unadulterated avocado binge. Alas, no avocados. Thankfully coconut and coconut milk counted -- lifesavers.

The verboten: anything with additives, salt, sugar, or other seasonings, and anything that goes against the spirit of 100% unadulterated fruit. Part of the whole exercise is an on-your-honor, mind-over-body detoxification, so bending the rules is pretty much automatic failure. That said, I accidentally ate an almond while munching on a dried fruit mix. I don't think this disqualifies me from enlightenment.

Claudine is a bit of a Jedi master when it comes to using a blender or food processor, so smoothies were a huge treat during the fruit feast. My favorite combo was coconut milk with frozen banana and perhaps mango. Claudine loved our refreshing morning smoothies of frozen watermelon, banana, and some fresh lime juice. I wasn't complaining.

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Eating lots of fresh fruit was a treat, although we generally eat lots of fresh fruit anyway, so I am not sure the fast worked quite the way it was intended. For the pack-a-day smoker who breathes steak and hasn't seen an apple outside of his grandmother's pie, this fast would probably be more impactful (and presumably more difficult). For Claudine and me it was just a bit annoying. It kept us from other healthful foods in our lives and did not leave us feeling particularly lighter, cleaner, or infused with more energy. In fact, I questioned the wisdom of replacing certain food with an all-fruit diet. Detoxification perhaps, but at what cost?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Beijing, Revisited

Last week I traveled to Beijing for work. I like to think that I know Beijing well; after all, I lived there between 2004 and 2005, and I was last in Beijing exactly three years ago, when I spent a week in the city for an urban planning conference in 2008. That conference took place just three weeks before the Summer Olympics, and I was stunned to see how much had changed in a little over three years -- there were the architectural marvels, like the Bird's Nest Stadium and the Rem Koolhaus CCTV tower (recently featured in a New York Times article). Then there was my old neighborhood, or what I thought was my old neighborhood, that looked like a different place entirely; in 2008 Sanlitun had given way to a sea of construction cranes and shiny brand-name stores, including the largest Adidas store in the world.

I had a similar experience this time around. Simply put, Beijing blew me away. Given that I arrived from Kathmandu, I admit that my perspective may be different than others', and it did not take much to impress me. For example, I could not get over the Hyundai taxis that felt like luxurious limousines, the smooth, straight roads, and the lack of incessant honking. And the sidewalks! So wide, so even. I kind of felt like I had died and gone to a walkable street heaven.

Beijing may have walkable streets, but with its massive scale it is not what I would call an extremely walkable city -- in the sense that you would have to walk a lot to get just about anywhere. According to Wikipedia, Beijing is 6,900 square miles. Chicago -- my most recent point of comparison in the U.S. -- is just 230 square miles.

This view from my hotel room shows the northeast edge of the city, and it gives a small glimpse a sense of Beijing's expanse.

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Fortunately, Beijing's transit system has significantly improved since I lived there. The rickety old buses have been replaced by gleaming mobiles that run on clean fuel and have television screens inside. The subway system has expanded. And, perhaps most exciting, the Airport Express is now open.

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Even though I was last there just three weeks before the Olympics, the Airport Express had not yet opened for business, so last week's trip was my first experience on the new line that runs directly from the airport to the city. From the domestic terminal to the first stop -- Sanyuanqiao -- the ride was only about 12 minutes. I was impressed by the speed, the convenience, and the train itself.

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I disembarked at Sanyuanqiao, which is on the Third Ring Road and near the hotel where I stayed last week. Incidentally, the hotel is located around the corner from my old office building, so I took myself on a tour to reacquaint myself with the neighborhood. My office building is still standing (though the firm has long since moved out to bigger and better real estate).

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The new -- and huge -- U.S. Embassy is located about a block away from my old office.

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And one of my favorite restaurants, an Israeli spot, was clearly leveled to make way for a massive construction site and worker housing.

Fortunately, some new and good restaurants have popped up in the area. I loved a place called the Food Cube on Xiaoyunlu, which had a great selection of simple but delicious dishes like steamed pumpkin and taro.

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And an awesome spinach pancake.

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And, of course, there was the requisite stop at the familiar -- I had to go to Starbucks for an iced decaf Americano (no decaf in Kathmandu!).

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In short, it was a great trip, and I hope to go back in another three years -- if not sooner -- to see where the city stands then.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

KTM Espresso

There's a new coffee shop in town.

KTM Espresso, located in Naxal just north of Nag Pokhari, opened last week. We were excited to try this spot after noticing its slick logo and tip off from our observant friend Jenara.

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Inside, there is slick decor to match.

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More white on white.

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Even cooler than the decor? Air-conditioning! This is a rare treat in Kathmandu, where AC units are few and far between and restaurant owners are reluctant to use them.

We scanned the menu.

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Drink prices at KTM Espresso are 50% higher than at Himalayan Java, the gold standard for coffee in Kathmandu. At KTM Espresso, a cup of fresh brewed coffee is 90 rupees, and an Americano is 110 rupees. Blended drinks, if those are your thing, are about 180 rupees.

The menu offers some breakfast items, which you can order ala carte or in a set meal for about 300 rupees. They also have a small selection of sandwiches and salads, ranging from 150 to 250 rupees.

Because we are going caffeine free these days, we skipped the coffee. Instead, Brian ordered a slice of carrot cake, which looked like the best item in the display case.

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And it was good. A moist dessert is always a welcome surprise in Kathmandu, where baked goods err on the side of dry as a brick. It was not the best carrot cake in the world (I mean, can we even call it carrot cake when it does not have cream cheese icing?), but it was very tasty in its own right.

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We think KTM Espresso is doing an excellent job of hitting the sleek style mark that is rare for cafes in Kathmandu. It even offers to-go cups with its bright logo.

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But it loses points on other counts. For one, the coffee is overpriced. Two, the advertised wi-fi is not free. [Update: the wireless internet is now free! See the comment below from KTM Espresso].

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To access wi-fi you have to pay 1000 rupees for a year-long membership. This membership also gets you a 10% discount on all of your purchases, but those savings would not add up fast. It seems rather silly to pay for a wi-fi membership in a city where many establishments offer it for free. And finally, KTM Espresso does not have bathrooms that are on par with its style and prices. Enough said.

Kathmandu friends, give KTM Espresso a try and tell us what you think. We're particularly wondering about the coffee. Not that we miss it or anything.